OK, I have to admit I blew the organizing of the Meetup in Boston. HijabMan and I met for a bit and spoke about the selection of imams in local mosques. It was actually part of the discussion in the morning’s IIA panel as well. Who chooses the imams? Who do they speak to? Who do they speak for?
He’s got a case study, so I won’t jump in on that. However, it strikes me that there are two basic approaches to religion: limiting and liberating.
These approaches describe how people see their own relationship to the Divine. All belief systems have rules and boundaries, but oftentimes the greatest creativity comes out of well-defined systems, so I’m not arguing against the edicts of faith.
In my mind the limiting approach says that purpose of religion is to limit life itself. Religion* is not a way to bind oneself with God, but a way to bind ones thoughts and actions. It is a way of denying freedom and, I think to a certain extent, responsibility. This view very much limits the soul.
The liberating approach says religion has given us a way to identify ourselves and a way to approach God. The guidance reinforces our responsibilities, and we can grow into them. This growth in turn allows us progress. The awareness of God, taqwa, is a liberating experience; the liberating approach presupposes the existence of God in the world, which in turn suffuses action. It does not use action to “summon” God into this world.
It seems that many “imported” imams favor the limiting approach, turning those who already accept God away from organized religion. I don’t think that bodes well for the long-term sustainability of the community. These imams speak for themselves since those who continue to support them are abdicating responsibility to someone who doesn’t advocate a positivist understanding of Islam. Those who don’t support these imams are no longer mosque-centered, thereby limiting the voice of one of the major public faces of Islam.